Obama administration drops use of term "enemy combatant"

Friday, March 13, 2009

The administration of United States President Barack Obama issued a court order Friday dropping "enemy combatant" as a term to describe those held in the U.S. military prison in Guantánamo Bay.

The move is a symbolic gesture that has been widely seen as a break from the administration of former President George W. Bush, which made the term an important aspect of his legal construct for dealing with terrorism suspects.

The United States Department of Justice filed the order in response to a federal judge's order seeking a definition of the term. Judges have said the definition will play a key role in determining whether the government has justified the confinement of many detainees who are challenging their status in U.S. District Court.

The Justice Department said it would only seek to detain those who "substantially supported" the Taliban, Al Qaeda or associated groups that participated in the September 11 terrorist attacks. The term "substantially supported" was not defined, but that classification would not include groups who "provide unwitting or insignificant support" to terror groups, according to court papers.

"The particular facts and circumstances justifying detention will vary from case to case, and may require the identification and analysis of various analogues from traditional international armed conflicts," government lawyers wrote in court papers. "Accordingly, the contours of the 'substantial support' and 'associated forces' bases of detention will need to be further developed in their application to concrete facts in individual cases."

This, too, was a break from the Bush administration, which has argued it can detain those who provided support to those groups, as well as those who "engaged in hostilities" against the United States and its allies.

Captives from the U.S. military prison in Guantánamo Bay in January 2002.

Although detainees have argued in lawsuits that only those directly involved in terrorist hostilities should be held, the Justice Department filing continues to assert Obama's authority to hold detainees even if they were not captured on the battlefield. However, Obama says he will rely on that authority from Congress and international laws of war, not the wartime authority that Bush claimed which stemmed from congressional authorization.

Obama plans to close the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base detention camp within a year and determine where to place the 240 detainees currently held there.

"As we work towards developing a new policy to govern detainees, it is essential that we operate in a manner that strengthens our national security, is consistent with our values and is governed by law," said Attorney General Eric Holder in a statement.